Putting you in the cab of a Santa Fe 4-6-4

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, January 30, 2018

AT&SF No. 3464, its stack extension raised, eases off the bridge at Chillicothe, Ill., heading west with train 23, the Grand Canyon, in 1951. Wallace W. Abbey photo.
One of the top items on any railfan bucket list is also mighty difficult to get: a ride on a mainline steam locomotive. Operators of today’s big engines don’t exactly invite people into the cab on a whim, and the occasional “engineer-for-an-hour” experience doesn’t come cheaply.

There are always cab-ride videos, of course, which give you a taste of the experience. But current ones are generally made under the controlled circumstances of excursions or short trips around the yard. What about riding with a steam crew under real-life circumstances, under the pressure of a timetable, sharing the railroad with other trains, at the very limit of the speed restriction?

I can recommend just such a video, without reservation. It’s called Operation of Steam Locomotive (, a short movie produced by the Santa Fe in the early 1940s and featuring a wild ride aboard a truly elite locomotive, 4-6-4 Hudson No. 3464.

The video was buried for years in the archives of the Kansas Historical Society until it was rediscovered by the Coalition for Sustainable Rail (CSR) (, a Duluth (Minn.)-based organization dedicated to historic rail preservation and the development of sustainable locomotive fuels. They are also the custodians of Santa Fe 4-6-4 3463, displayed in Topeka and sister to our movie engine. Full disclosure: I provided pro bono narration for the re-mastered version of the movie.

But before we get to the film, a few words about the magnificent setting: the cab of perhaps the ultimate Hudson. I’m a card-carrying member of the New York Central System Historical Society, a group that positively worships the most famous 4-6-4 of all, but it’s hard to argue with the greatness of AT&SF’s 3460 class. (I await the hate mail.)

Santa Fe Hudson 3464 gets a fresh supply of sand at the engine terminal in San Bernardino in July 1950. Stan Kistler photo.
There were only six of them, turned out by Baldwin in 1937, and the first, 3460, the “Blue Goose”, is remembered for its robin’s-egg blue shrouding. The AT&SF 4-6-4s often are compared with two other classes of Hudsons, the six streamlined Milwaukee Road F7s of 1938, and the nine streamlined Chicago & North Western’s E-4 class engines of 1937, all built by Alco. All of these thoroughbreds boasted 84-inch drivers and 300 psi of boiler pressure, giving them an unprecedented combination of power and speed, at least for 4-6-4s. For these machines, a sustained 100 mph was a piece of cake. Santa Fe’s oil burners were especially noteworthy for their long assignments, especially the 990-mile Chicago-La Junta run, usually made without engine change.

My excitement over this movie sent me searching the Classic Trains files for photos of the 3464, and luckily I found two of them, shown here. One is a well-known action shot of the engine coming down off the Illinois River bridge at Chillicothe, Ill., with the westbound Grand Canyon, photographed in 1951 by Wallace W. Abbey. The other has 3464 in a quiet moment at the sand tower in the engine terminal in San Bernardino, Calif. Photographer Stan Kistler caught up with the engine in 1950.

A bonus photo comes from the Abbey collection of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art: a bittersweet shot of 3464, hauling a work train at Winfield, Kans., not long before it was scrapped. Notice the odd-looking replacement driving wheels, cast for Santa Fe by the LFM Steel Foundry of Atchison, Kans.

Now back to the movie. It’s only about 17 minutes long, but it packs a lot of punch. The Santa Fe hired a cameraman to ride along with the 3464’s crew on what appears to be a Chicago-Kansas City run. Visible at various points are stops at Chillicothe, Ill., and Shopton (Fort Madison), Iowa.

The crew is right out of central casting. The engineer is a stout, bespectacled, flinty-eyed veteran, dressed in overalls, gauntlets, and a white cap. His fireman looks the part, too, ready to dig into the gritty requirements of his trade.

The film starts right at the beginning, showing the engineer making his early rounds: checking the sight glass and the automatic train control (Santa Fe’s 4-6-4s operated in ATS territory), testing the injector, inspecting the running gear. One of my favorite scenes shows our somewhat diminutive hogger dwarfed by the 7-foot drivers, using engine-borne ladders to get to all the running gear while he’s oiling around.

Time is running out for 3464, leading a work train at Winfield, Kans., in 1953. Wallace W. Abbey photo, Center for Railroad Photography & Art.
The fireman has plenty of work to do, too. He checks all the cab’s lanterns and wrenches, uses the long dipstick to check the oil in the 7000-gallon oil bunker, and opens the firebox to jab at clogged surfaces with a long prong. After a few seconds the engine crew checks their watches with the conductor, and we’re off.

What comes next is thrilling. Not long after the engineer advances the reverse lever and cracks the throttle, our crew and their 4-6-4 begin gaining momentum. Before long the deck of 3464 is a lurching, banging, perilous place. The shaking image tells you how hard the cameraman had to work to keep his balance and still make a good movie.

But the crew seems impervious to all the chaos. You’ll see the engineer carefully manage his throttle and brakes, trying to keep the slack stretched for the passengers in back even as he tries to coax every bit of 3460’s awesome speed and horsepower. At one point the camera focuses on the speedometer, pegged at 93 mph.

Meanwhile, our fireman has his own duties: adjusting the oil firing valves, sanding the flues, monitoring the feedwater heater, mixing the water treatment for the next water stop, washing down the cab floor with the deck hose. It’s exhausting just watching the guy go about his business.

I won’t give anything else away, because you should watch the movie. Suffice it to say, this short little film will deepen your appreciation of the work performed by a crack crew in the days of steam’s finest hour. On this run, and probably on all of them, there was never a dull moment.

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